Sunday, February 27, 2011

Michigan Eye and Dental Brigade

We spent all last week interpreting for a medical brigade from Michigan that came to La Esperanza, so we thought we’d give you all some of the highlights. The brigade is part of a partnership between the Lions Club here and in Michigan. Every year eye doctors and dentists come to La Esperanza around this time of year to offer free services. We headed over to the Lions Club building on Sunday afternoon, thinking we were having a meeting to get to know everyone. To our surprise, the brigade was already getting started so we jumped right into interpreting.

People waiting in line

We started out helping with acuity tests (reading the eye chart at distance and close up) which was pretty boring, but quickly moved to where we were really needed, assisting the ophthalmologists as they asked patients questions and provided diagnoses and treatments. There was actually very little interpreting that needed to be done. The doctors only ask a few questions (Having any problems? Which is better, 1 or 2? etc), and most of the visit is looking at their eyes, which just requires you to tell them to keep their head straight and look into the distance, which for some reason was really tricky for most people. The doctors have also been coming for quite some time, a few for 20 years, so they spoke a little Spanish too. The dentists had everything covered so no interpreter was necessary. Our friends Zach and Karl from nearby sites came in for the week to help out, and having the extra company made it more fun.

Distance acuity test

Up close acuity test

Eye pressure check

Eye exam

Zach interpreting for Dr. Bob

Karl interpreting

As usual the patients who come to the brigade, rich and poor, figure out exactly what they need to complain of to the doctors in order to get new glasses or eye drops. The doctors really only half mind the lying. After awhile they were almost automatically giving everyone reading glasses, sunglasses and moisturizing drops. The funniest was one little kid, really intent on getting some glasses. The doctor began asking which lenses were better, moving the prescription up and up as the kid said each successive lens was better. Then the doctor started to go back down in prescription, and the little kid continued saying it was better and better until it the doctor got to zero prescription, which the kid still insisted was better than the last. That little guy didn’t get any glasses.

Nolan helping Iliona, our favorite little girl, get new glasses

The best part was meeting people. The brigade brought not only doctors and dentists but a bunch of others to help out with acuity tests, x-rays, and glasses fittings, most of whom were not eye doctors or hygienists or anything in the field of medicine. Several were teachers, another worked at the Michigan Forest Association, and many were retired. It was nice to chat with them, having Michigan in common, and sharing some of our insights into Honduran culture. We met people from the Lions Club in La Esperanza (Club de Leones) who, as you might expect, are the wealthy movers and shakers in the community that we now have connections with. We also ran into a bunch of people we already knew from around town and made friends with some new people, a couple who owns a hotel, a woman who works at the grocery store and a guy from the radio station.

Bill and Johnny

Toby was a balloon artist and made this little girl a house

Nolan had a couple opportunities to work with the dentists, so I’ll let him tell you about that….

Like Nicki mentioned, the dentists had things pretty much covered, they had one high school Spanish teacher with them who did most of their interpreting. Since there is less talking with the dentists than the eye doctors, she was able to go back and forth between the dentist and the hygienist. There were, however, a couple times when she was somewhere else, so I went and interpreted for the hygienist. The first and most interesting time, I helped explain to a young boy that she had to give him a shot to numb his mouth, and then that she was going to pull two baby teeth, and three rotted roots. The kid seemed to take it pretty well, didn’t want his dad in the room, and only started to cry when the dentist came and gave him a shot in the roof of his mouth. All the doctors brought little toys and things to give to the kids after they saw them, so he got several things, and seemed happy enough when it was over. The only real problem is that with a diet of coke and churros (chips) the kid will probably be back next year to have more rotting teeth pulled.

The hygienist doing a cleaning

Dentist doing an extraction

The best day of the brigade for me, however, was the last day. The dental team spilt up into two groups to go to two different schools to teach the kids about brushing their teeth and also to administer fluoride treatments. I had been asked earlier in the week if I could help with the second group, so on Thursday I left early to go with them. The school we went to was not that far out of town, but it was still far enough that all 6 grades (37 students total) were in one class. A nearby school ended up coming down so we gave the presentation twice to 77 kids total (the other dental group presented to 200 students). The presentation consisted of the dental hygienist explaining how to brush your teeth (for 2 min, in circles, etc) in English, and me translating what she said into Spanish. We then explained about the fluoride treatment and how we would administer it. In the first class, one of the 1st graders burst into tears when were explaining it. Once we figured out why he was crying, he thought we wanted to pull out all his teeth and give him a shot (how he came to that conclusion we have no idea), we were able to calm him down, but he never did let us give him the treatment. Another cute interaction was when we asked for questions, and if they understood what we were saying. One boy raised his hand and said he didn’t understand. It also took us awhile, but eventually he said he didn’t understand the dental team, and the teacher explained that that was because they were speaking English, and that I was there to translate what they said for the students.

After the presentation, we started the fluoride application. Basically, what we did was put on latex gloves, squirt a little fluoride cream onto our hand, and brush the fluoride onto the kid’s teeth. Other than the one kid, it was pretty easy to get them excited about it. We told them that it tasted like gum, but that they shouldn’t swallow it, and they couldn’t eat anything for at least 30 minutes afterward. At the end, we left each class with toothbrushes and toothpaste, enough fluoride for two more treatments, and a couple boxes of school supplies, all of which (toothbrushes, pencils, protractors, everything) the kids will keep at school, use during class, and leave there at the end of the day. This is so they don’t bring it home and lose it. It’s the safest thing to do here where people don’t brush their teeth because they can’t afford toothpaste.

Nolan applying fluoride treatment

Hygienist applying fluoride treatment

Maybe it wasn't such a good idea handing out those latex gloves...

Thursday was our last day, and we said farewell to the doctors and brigade members at a despedida (going away party) at our favorite local restaurant/dance club/sports bar, El Fogon. In typical Honduran style everyone arrived about an hour late, people gave speeches in English and Spanish that were oddly translated and repetitive, and everyone received at least one diploma (we got two, haha!). We were also gifted some Michigan wine and chocolates for our interpreting services. We had a full dinner with an open bar followed by cake and dancing to songs of the 80’s, 90’s and today. I suppose they chose U.S. pop songs because the brigade was from the U.S., but it felt tacky and lacking in Latin flavor.

The brigade comes every year and should come again before we leave, so we'll have a chance to see our new friends again next year.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

A New Perspective

It has been a couple weeks since I returned, but I am finally getting around to writing about my translating experience (or to be grammatically correct, my interpretation experience).

I was first approached several months ago about my interest, if any, in helping to interpret for a member of the Virginia Medical Center Brigade. While the guy I would help would be a member of the brigade, the work would not be interpreting for doctors treating patients. The brigade has been coming to Honduras, to the city and aldeas of Comayagua specifically, for 10 years or so. A few years ago, in an effort to become more sustainable, they started training ‘Community Health Workers’ who could work in local clinics throughout the year when the doctors were not there. While training the Community Health Workers, they realized that many of the communities they were working with did not have clean, easily accessible water. Because clean water, and the education to properly use it, is perhaps the best preventative medicine they could give, the brigade decided to build water systems for these people. The guy they put in charge of overseeing these water projects, Dan, is a retired real estate developer, and because he doesn’t speak much Spanish, he has always had Peace Corps volunteers accompany him on his trips to help. The current volunteer that he has been working with finishes his service in May, so he was looking for new help, and another volunteer and I responded.

Dan flew into Tegucigalpa on a Monday, so three of us PCV’s met him at the Peace Corps office. He wanted to quickly meet Emily, our new Peace Corps Honduras directora, before going to review the current status of the as-built plans of the water system at the engineering office. At this point, I was just along for the ride, learning what I could about the system. Once those meeting were finished, we were off to Comayagua. It was already night, but after the 2 hour drive, we still had another meeting at our hotel to review the blueprints for an orphanage that the brigade wants to build in La Paz, a nearby city. We met with the architect over dinner at the hotel, and got to bed relatively early.

In order to fit everything in, we got started early the next day. We went to the current orphanage (in an old falling apart school building) to meet with the nun who runs it. We wanted to show her the plans before we met with the mayor and city council to give them an update on our progress. After those meetings, the plan was actually completely changed, so we will see how the architect redesigns it next time. The orphans were very cute. We got there right as they were waking up, and the first thing they all did when they came out of their bedrooms was come and give each of us a hug.

Comayagua is actually one of the bigger cities in Honduras, so obviously we weren’t going to stay there to help with water projects. We had to go up about an hour and a half into the mountains, about an hour past where the last bus reaches. We were going to be camping up there for 4 nights, so once we had stocked up on food for the week, we set off. Our camp site turned out to be near the top of the mountain in a clearing that serves as a typical Honduran aldea center. There was a soccer field, a school, a church, and the new clinic that the brigade was having built. It was actually quite a dense ‘downtown’ for a community like this. We set up our tents, and reviewed the plan for the week while waiting for church to end so the woman who had agreed to cook for us could make dinner.

Campsite at the top of the mountain

One of the ways to try to get the community to take ownership of a water system is to get them as involved as possible. The community typically provides sand, rocks, wood. They do all the unqualified labor including digging ditches for the tubes, and chopping and carrying equipment for the topographer. Being a machismo society, those are all typically male jobs. The women usually provide food. I always get lunch made and brought to me when I survey, and here, while we bought the food, we were having all our meals cooked for us.

Ready to help

The next three days were spent inspecting various parts of the water system. We walked along the along the line, making sure everything was in order, noting when there were small things that still needed to be added or changed. We also had to count the pipe anchor in places where the pipe couldn’t be buried. This was to make sure that the Brigade was paying for the actual number of anchors that were built. Because all my work thus far has been on theoretical water systems that may or may not be built during my service, it was very interesting to get a chance to see a currently functioning water system. Plus, inspecting it with people who have done this before gave me insight into what to look for in current systems. I have tried to inspect one system before, but I didn’t really know what to look for. Now, I have a much better idea what can go wrong, and where to look.

Lonely water tank

Riding up the mountain...can you say fresa

Counting the anchors

Taking a break from the hike

In addition to the inspection, we also met with the junta de agua, the local water board. This system is actually quite a large rural water system, serving 8 different communities. Because of this, each community has their own water board for their section of the system, which together forms the general water board for the entire system. Serving so many communities, there are bound to be differences of opinions, which we experienced during the meeting. It was our first real test of interpreting, trying to keep up with the argument while translating simultaneously. In the middle of the meeting, the general water board president said he was resigning, and walked out. After the meeting, we went down to his house to talk to him. He felt no one appreciated him, and that he was receiving all the blame for everything. We told him to take some time to think about his decision, and by the next day when we were leaving, he had decided not to resign. Of course, that brought up some other complications. After the resignation, we had effectively put the VP in charge, and no one was sure if it was possible for the president to renounce his resignation. It turns out that a verbal resignation doesn’t mean much, and since he didn’t sign anything, he had not officially resigned, and remained the president, so everything turned out fine.

We had been camping for 4 days, not only subject to the local politics of rural Honduras, but also the local microclimates. Our camp site was high enough in the mountains to be in the clouds, and after the first nice clear day, we had essentially been in at best a misty rain the whole time with actual rain at night. We were wet and ready to head down to the valley. Because of the rain, the roads had become impassable, but luckily we had parked the trucks a little way down, below the scary muddy cliff hugging roads. Once we safely made it down, we got cleaned up for a nice dinner to celebrate the week.

Dan and his pack mule, Selvin (Selvin carried his backpack the whole week)

We camped above this lower edge of the clouds

We stayed in Comayagua one extra day in order to meet with a community that the brigade had built a water system for 2 years ago. We wanted to visit and make sure everything was still going smoothly for them. As it turns out, the water board was at the end of their term so we were able to experience the election of the new board. Of course, nothing much changed; all the current members were reelected, with the community just electing people to the positions that were missing. Everyone there seemed very competent, and it gave me hope to see a community with such a well functioning water system, they were even properly chlorinating! Que bien!

It was a tiring week, but I learned a lot, met some new people, and am looking forward to accompanying Dan on his next trip down here.